Exercise and fitness

Exercise and weight loss

Exercise and Fitness

1 April 2021

Mother and daughters dancing at home

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Expert answers to questions about exercise, fitness training and weight loss

Our team of experienced physiologists, including fitness experts and nutritionists, answer your questions about exercise and weight loss. Here we’ve rounded up the best of the team’s support and insights around the most commonly asked questions:

Q. I'm a working mum. There's hardly any time during the week to exercise. I've always exercised but am really struggling to find the energy or the motivation. Do you have any suggestions?

As a working mum it can be very difficult to fit everything into your day, especially the time to exercise! The main thing is to keep physically active throughout your working day so it doesn’t impact too much on your commitments outside of work – try and do what you can, when you can, building it into your everyday activities.

You could start your day with a few exercises while the kids have their breakfast – this’ll get your blood pumping and help you feel energised. There are plenty of things you can do on the spot, such as squats, lunges, press ups, running on the spot, or triceps dips. Alternatively, if time allows, try going for a lunch time run or brisk walk – even ten minutes of moderate activity will help with your fitness goals. Try to find activities that also involve the kids, whether it’s a family bike ride, a sports class, swimming or even taking them to the park and getting a quick jog in while they play!

Q. I like going to the gym, but I need some help to stay motivated – any suggestions?

A really good way to start is to get yourself a fitness journal, or even just a basic notepad. Jot down what you already do for a week and then think of ways you can adapt your routine to mix it up a bit. Write down all aerobic and resistance exercise that you enjoy and each time you’re at the gym pick a different activity to do. You’ll be keeping things varied so you don’t get bored, while challenging your body in different ways each time.

If you only tend to go for aerobic exercise why not mix it up and try some resistance exercises; a willing exercise instructor can show you the ropes if you’re unsure. If all that sounds a bit daunting, try going with a like-minded friend or try out a new class. Both of these can motivate you to be a little competitive and to have some fun and meet new people! Find out more about the benefits of group exercise.

Q. Is it true that the only way to really lose weight is through dieting – and exercise doesn't actually help?

A healthy, balanced diet is undoubtedly one of the main drivers for weight loss. However, exercise can be used alongside having a healthy diet to create what’s known as an ‘energy deficit’ (this is where we lose weight). In some instances, exercise can create this energy deficit without dieting, as long as your current diet is not high in calories. Remember, exercising isn’t all about losing weight. Think of the added benefits exercise, such as improving your heart health, increasing your metabolic control, improving muscle function and helping you feel less stressed. Take a look at our article to find out more about the mental health benefits of exercise.

Q. I've heard two different pieces of advice around best the ways to exercise - some say cardio first then weights, others say weights first. Do you have any advice?

Exercise prescription is often over complicated at the best of times, so let’s cut it down to the basics. There’s no consensus yet to justify one order of exercises over the other. If your goal is to increase endurance, it would be best to focus on cardio for that specific session, or if you want to increase muscle mass it would be best to focus on weights (i.e. focus on session quality as opposed to quantity). Bear in mind, you can do both and can always alternate days between weights and cardio. If you want to do both cardio and weights in the same session, specifically including movements such as olympic lifts or heavy resistance training, this would generally come before cardio, due to the complexity of the movements. New to weight training? Take a look at our article on training with weights to help get you started.

Q. I hear so many different ways to keep fit I'm not sure which is the right one for me. Is there a standard set of exercises I should do?

Firstly, it’s important to do the exercises you enjoy as this way you’ll stay committed to it in the long run. However, a balance of cardiovascular and bodyweight or resistance-based exercises is the best way to keep fit as they work the body differently. Cardio exercise is any exercise that raises your heart rate. It doesn’t have to be long runs on the treadmill or ages spent on an exercise bike, it could be done in the form of a fun dance class (or dancing about at home!) or a 20 minute high-intensity class. The main aim is to work the heart and leave you feeling tired out (only for around 20 minutes). Bodyweight exercises, such as squats, pull-ups, push ups and dips are great as they improve your strength and endurance, which will help shape your body and also strengthen your bones and ligaments. Variety is crucial, so feel free to mix it up!

Q. When looking to add muscle is it better to lift heavy and less, or light and more?

If you’re looking to build muscle, one of the most important factors is training to fatigue (i.e. training until your muscles are tired and you can’t do any more repetitions). Most of the recent research on this topic (from the National Centre for Biotechnology Information) has shown that training with lighter weights can have the same outcome as training with heavier weights, as long as you are training until your muscles are exhausted (you feel a burn!). This appears to be the main ‘driver’ for muscle gain. Variation is another important factor. If you can mix up your training to include periods of heavier weights (low reps) and also periods of lighter weights (high reps), you’ll likely be increasing both your strength and endurance respectively.

Q. What's more beneficial for weight loss, cardio or weight work?

In short, do both! A combination of cardio and weight work is the most beneficial for weight loss as cardio based exercises will help you burn calories during the session and weight work will increase the rate your body burns calories when you’re not exercising, due to the muscle you gain.

Q. I've noticed that retaining tone and staying lean are harder the older I get. Do you have any advice on whether I should be adapting what I do to improve this? At the moment, I'm running approx 3 times a week and resistance/weight training 2-3 times.

As we age, we naturally lose some of our muscle and increase our fat. This is called sarcopenia. If your goal is to stay lean and keep that toned look, try to do some resistance training sessions to help preserve muscle mass. To stay healthy or to improve health, the NHS recommends older adults need to do two types of physical activity each week: aerobic and strength (resistance) exercises. Don’t forget the importance of nutrition. Adjusting your calorie intake will help you stay lean, and there is strong evidence to suggest that boosting your protein intake will help preserve muscle (and lose some extra weight) as well.

Q. What would an ideal breakfast be?

Ideal breakfasts are usually balanced. They should combine lean protein, healthy fats and wholegrain to create a breakfast full of fibre (which helps you to feel fuller for longer), while containing ‘slow-release’ carbohydrates that release energy slowly over a longer period of time. You want to avoid sugar rich breakfasts, such as cereals as these can lead to sugar spikes and crashes. Try to include foods like:

  • Proteins – lean meats, Greek yogurt, eggs
  • Healthy fats – avocados, nuts
  • Wholegrain – oats (for some recipe inspiration, take a look at our article, oats three ways)
  • Fibre – fruit and vegetables, chia seeds

Porridge is a great option for breakfast. Eggs are also a good choice as they contain both protein and healthy fats. To mix things up, you could try frittata cups, omelettes or shaksuka. Take a look at what our health experts eat for breakfast for more ideas.

Q. I eat very healthily, with a mixed & balanced diet. But I usually have a chocolate bar and a can of pop per day. Is this bad?

You do have to take into consideration your physical activity levels when assessing diet, as active people generally need more energy. However, having a chocolate bar or can of fizzy drink every day may mean that you still exceed your sugar requirements for the day. WHO guidelines state that daily total sugar consumption shouldn’t exceed 90 grams. A can of cola contains 39 grams of sugar. A standard sized (45 gram) plain chocolate bar contains around 25 grams of sugar. Be mindful that a lot of other foods that you eat in your day contain some form of sugar as well. Check food labels on packaging to get an idea of your sugar intake. There’s no physiological purpose for added sugars in the diet, so the more they can be restricted and replaced by healthier snacks, the better. Among other benefits, it can help keep your risk of type 2 diabetes down. Why not try switching a full fat can for a ‘diet’ or ‘zero’ can to help reduce sugar content?

Q. What do you think about sugar detoxing? Are our bodies really cut out for no sugar?

Artificial sugar – in high amounts – can be detrimental to our health, so it would be beneficial to cut down the amount consumed in some foods. However, sugar contained in fruit (known as fructose) is different. Fruit is an important element of a healthy and balanced diet. There’s a common misconception that naturally occurring sugar found in fruit is as bad for our health as artificial sugar. These naturally occurring sugars can actually be important for the metabolic function in the body, providing a useful energy source. There are no studies indicating a maximum daily fruit intake at which point a negative health impact can be observed, even when looking at nearly as many as 20 pieces a day. The fibre, micronutrient and low fructose content may play a role in this. Fruit smoothies, on the other hand, have most of the fibre removed and contain more fructose and glucose than whole, raw fruit, so you should probably have these in moderation. However, fruit should still be consumed in amounts that allow consumption of a wide range of food groups, in order to get the benefits from other nutrients your body needs.

Q. Will being a vegetarian help me lose weight?

Not necessarily. To lose weight, you need to be in a ‘calorie deficit’, which means burning more calories than you consume over a day. You can either achieve this by increasing calories burned through exercise, or reducing your food intake (or better still, do both!). This calorie deficit doesn’t necessarily have to be from cutting out meat or fish to be successful. As a vegetarian, you’ll need to find other sources of protein and omega 3 to maintain energy levels and overall health. Remember that protein is a key nutrient for muscle growth and repair. Alternative sources of omega 3 fats include flaxseed, rapeseed oil, soya products, walnuts and fortified eggs. And meat-free sources of protein include beans, lentils, pulses and quinoa.

Q. I recently did a juice detox for a few days and found it really worked for me. Is there any harm replacing a meal with a full juice?

Ultimately, a juice diet will help to create a calorie deficit - but this is usually unsustainable in the long-term. A calorie deficit can also be achieved with whole meals by controlling portion sizes and finding healthy alternatives, which will also have many advantages over juices. Eating a meal will make you feel fuller for longer, reducing the urge to have unhealthy snacks later in the day. In comparison to juices, these balanced meals will also have greater nutrient density, providing your body with the necessary nutrients it needs to be healthy throughout your life.

Q. I'm trying to gain better upper body muscles and definition. I've started doing weights and trying to eat right. What foods should I focus on to help with this?

Protein is the key dietary factor for gaining muscle. You should aim to include a good source of protein with each meal. Great sources of protein include lean meats (e.g. chicken, turkey, fish) and foods such as eggs and dairy. Other great meat-free sources include quinoa, buckwheat and soy. Combining these with nutritious, balanced meals will give your body what it needs to maximise muscle growth and recovery from your training sessions.

Further reading and resources

How to lose weight well | AXA Health

Metabolism and weight loss: myth vs fact | AXA Health

Exercise and fitness | AXA Health hub

Diet and nutrition | AXA Health hub

AXA Health expert contributors

Sarah Kemp – Health and Wellbeing Programme Manager 
Georgina Camfield – Programme Lead Physiologist
Rebecca Hussey - Physiologist
Jemelle Carpenter-Gayle – Physiologist
Rhys Clark - Physiologist
Thomas Rothwell – Physiologist
Daniel Craig – Senior Physiologist


Eating a balanced diet – NHS Choices

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